ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines – More than a dozen people were killed today as hundreds of Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels attacked several towns in southern Philippines, the military and witnesses said.
Gunmen in Lanao del Norte occupied the towns of Kolambugan, Maigo and Kauswagan, and were reportedly fighting in Tubod. Attacks also were reported in the neighboring provinces of Sarangani and Sultan Kudarat, where an unknown number of civilians were killed or wounded.
One commuter bus was ambushed at a rebel checkpoint near Kolambugan town and rebels shot at least 14 passengers, witnesses said.
“They were mercilessly gunned down. They were executed as they pleaded for their lives,” said Antonio Aurilla, who told a radio station here that he escaped the carnage with three others.
One soldier, identified as Cpl. Borlado by the radio station, said troops recovered three more corpses, people who had apparently been shot, at a bridge in Kolambugan.
He said at least two soldiers from his team were wounded fighting rebels in the town.
“There is fighting in the areas, and we are trying to drive away the rebels,” said Army Brig. Gen. Hilario Atendido, commander of a military task force.
The highway connecting Lanao del Norte to other provinces was already occupied by rebels. Tens of thousands of civilians have fled their homes for fear they would be caught in the crossfire. Witnesses said rebels set fire to some buildings in the occupied towns.
The militant group, which is trying to negotiate a peace deal with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s government, said the attacks were carried out by rebels disgruntled over the slow pace of the talks and the failure of both sides to sign an agreement setting up a Muslim homeland in the south.
Eid Kabalu, a senior rebel leader, said commanders were trying to contact a local commander.
“This fighting should stop. We don’t want the fighting to spread to other areas,” he said.
Retired Gen. Rodolfo Garcia, head of the government’s negotiating team with the rebels, called the attack on the towns a violation of a 2003 cease-fire, the Associated Press reported.
He said government officials were trying to get through to the rebels to get them to control their fighters.
“This is an act that must not be tolerated,” Garcia said.
Officials in the predominantly Christian cities in the southern Philippines – the traditional homeland of minority Muslims – have strongly opposed a preliminary accord forged between the government and the rebels in a bid to end the decades-old insurgency for Muslim self-rule in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation.
The agreement, which was supposed to be signed this month but was blocked by the Supreme Court, calls for the expansion of an existing Muslim autonomous region to include more than 700 new villages, subject to the approval of residents.